RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., February 10, 2014 – Our election process is broken. In truth: We no longer hold elections; we conduct auctions. We have tragically allowed the Parties to craft the best Government that money can buy.
Meanwhile, President Obama recently proclaimed, “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need. I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.” Having already demonstrated that he’s not afraid to issue Executive Orders at a pace that exceeds that of his often-maligned predecessor, we should take him at his word.
Then, rather than debating whether the President is granting himself the same license he once so fervently criticized (i.e., “These last few years we’ve seen an unacceptable abuse of power at home. We’ve paid a heavy price for having a President whose priority is expanding his own power,” then-Senator Obama said in 2007), perhaps we can take advantage of it.
While the cash squandered on the 2014 mid-terms will pale in comparison to the profligate spending that awaits us in 2016, this might provide the perfect opportunity to call upon the President to use his “pen and phone” in a manner that would actually benefit the People.
Logic supports the request as well. After all, President Obama is arguing that he is compelled to take action in the absence of a truly functional Legislative Branch. Why not take steps that could successfully restore Congress to a higher level of performance? That would certainly be consistent with “providing Americans the kind of help they need.”
Besides, prior to President Obama’s 2008 election, the most money ever raised and spent on a Presidential election by two candidates was $717.9 million (Bush and Kerry in 2004). Senator Obama topped that total figure by himself in 2008 by spending approximately $745 million only to dwarf that number in 2012 when he spent approximately $1 billion to get re-elected to a position that pays $400 thousand per year. He clearly should understand the problem.
According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, the Democratic and Republican Parties are estimated to have spent about $6 billion dollars in the collective “auctions” in which their candidates participated in 2012. This trend has created an economic barrier to the entrance of Third Party and independent candidates who might actually bring solutions to the table rather than sound bites.
Instead, it assures that the same non-functional officials will be re-elected to office. Consider that with an approval rating in the low teens, 90 percent of House members and 91 percent of Senators running for re-election were returned to office in 2012. Public office should not be for sale, nor should it go to the highest bidder, but in today’s world, that happens more often than not.
A “freshening” of President Reagan’s 1987 speech in Berlin seems appropriate:
“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and open elections go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Parties can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. President Obama, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the United States, if you seek liberalization, pick up your pen and your phone. Mr. Obama, open our elections. Mr. Obama, tear down this wall!”
Mr. President: What an inspirational act it would be if you were to use your expanded powers not to favor your own agenda but to return integrity to our political system. Try to imagine how positively our society and economy would respond to an Executive Order that eliminated the obstacles that have been placed in the way of our Nation’s elections. Mr. President, tear down that wall!
According to the website of the Federal Election Commission, from 1907 until 1966, efforts were made to limit the influence of wealthy special interests, regulate campaign spending, and deter abuses through public disclosure of campaign finances. In 1971, Congress consolidated its reform efforts by enacting the Federal Election Campaign Act to control Federal candidates, Parties, and PACs. Then, in response to alleged abuses during the 1972 Presidential campaign, Congress established the Federal Election Commission, which went into effect in 1975.
Somewhere between then and now, we lost our way.
The FEC is supposed to function as an independent regulatory agency (i.e., not tied to the Cabinet). Its six Commissioners are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. The law had the foresight to limit each position to a single six-year term and to preclude any one Party from having more than three Commissioners at any one time.
Unfortunately, rather than exploring the possibility of having independent or Third Party Commissioners, you and your predecessors have defaulted to having three Democrats and three Republicans serve concurrently. As a result, the rules remain radically skewed toward retaining the status quo.
So, Mr. President: How about picking up that pen and phone of yours? Help bring about “Change We Can Believe In” to the election process at least in terms of campaign finance reform … because “We Can’t Wait!”
Perhaps you could begin by shuffling the deck of the FEC’s Commissioners. We know how the game ends if the deck remains stacked. Why not allow us to see what would happen if the Parties didn’t control the rules at the Federal level?
We might see a dramatic reduction in the campaign contribution limits as a result. Correspondingly, this could have a variety of constructive impacts.
It could lead to a more level playing field in which positive ideas would play a more significant role than the number of negative ads a candidate might run. It could also bring an end to those embarrassing $40,000-a-plate dinners that demonstrate a complete insensitivity toward the plight of the poor.
If you need some math to convince you, one $40,000-a-plate dinner represents approximately four-times the annual income of an individual who qualifies as impoverished under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2014 guidelines.
Would a little more math help?
The $2 billion that Mitt Romney and you cumulatively spent on your 2012 campaigns would have fed, clothed, and housed nearly 21,000 indigent families of four for the entire four-year term for which you were competing (or nearly 336,000 poverty-stricken Americans if you only wanted to cover all of their expenses for just one year). Just triple those numbers if you want to determine the impact the campaign committees and Super PACs of both Parties could have had if they had the courage to participate in elections rather than auctions.
While you’re at it, please call for an end to “bundling.” This might have the collateral benefit of forcing future Administrations to make senior staff and Ambassadorship appointments on a basis of merit instead of as a repayment for a political debt.
During your two terms, approximately 80 percent of senior White House appointments and 50 percent of Ambassadorships have gone to people who bundled $500,000 or more for your campaign. How much better might Washington function if we tried to attract our best and brightest talent to serve our interests rather than simply rewarding those who solicited massive sums of money for their Party?
If there’s any ink left in your pen, you may want to create a regulation that recognizes that only citizens can vote; therefore, only citizens should be able to contribute to political campaigns. This would eliminate the charade of allowing corporations, unions, and PACs to pretend to accurately represent the interests of their constituents. Besides, each citizen already has a voice in the form of a vote as well as the free will to individually contribute to a campaign should he or she choose. Additional representation by some other organization is not required.
Of course, unless we begin to make Supreme Court appointments based upon judicial merit rather than partisan tendencies, we can no longer rely on the Court to make intelligent decisions. The Justices may confuse a legal entity with a real person … or deem a penalty to be a tax. However, that is an entirely separate issue.
It might also be interesting to only allow citizens to contribute directly to the campaigns of specific candidates rather than to a Party for distribution at its discretion. Then, candidates would have to stand on their own merits rather than being propped up by funding they receive from their Party. Citizens could still contribute to the Party of their choice, but the Parties could only use such funds to support their positions on the issues.
This would also eliminate the money laundering that goes on during the campaigns to circumvent contribution limitations (i.e., the splitting of donations between a particular candidate and his or her Party only to have the Party redirect the funds back to the benefit of the candidate). All you have to do is declare that each campaign committee must remain autonomous of every other campaign committee.
Correspondingly, this would preclude one elected official’s campaign committee from donating to the campaign committee of another elected official. You wouldn’t believe how often the recipient coincidently takes a position on a bill that’s favorable to the donor.
If you could make one more phone call, please make it to the Justice Department. Tell the Attorney General that, to preserve the Republic, it is necessary to concurrently protect the right to vote and to hold valid elections. All eligible citizens must retain the privilege to cast a vote. Please note: “Eligible” is the operative word.
As a commission co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter (D) and former Secretary of State James Baker, III (R) concluded in 2005, we must find a way to fairly require voter identification that does not penalize any class of citizens. Defaulting to the claim of “racism” in today’s technologically advanced age should be an embarrassment to your Administration, and it merely perpetuates the racial divide. Third-world countries do a better job of attracting voters to their polls and verifying eligibility than ours does. That has to stop.
There are many more things that can be done to restore faith and trust in our political process, but your hand must be cramped from writing and your cell phone may be running out of battery. So, let’s just start with these.
Every President of the United States is either remembered or forgotten historically. Those who are forgotten suffer that fate for having failed to significantly impact our Nation’s history. Those who are remembered earned their reputations in either a positive or negative way.
If you wish to mitigate the negative impression that exercising unilateral action can otherwise leave, then use such authority to do something positive for the Country; something that is not tied to the political agenda of a particular Party but rather is only focused upon the best interests of the People. You may rest assured: Election reform would create a more lasting legacy than healthcare reform … and the roll-out would be far easier.
Thank you for listening, Mr. President.
T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.
This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities Digital News (CDN).